ChristaCarol asked this question about manuscript length via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since manuscript length really is on writers’ minds. I almost hesitate to get into the children’s book length discussion publicly because it can be controversial. But, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂
Here’s the question:
I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript length is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? How long should a children’s book be? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?
This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.
What Should My Manuscript Length Be?
I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.
Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, at any given time, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query with a manuscript length over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.
Word Count Can Be Flexible
It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.
There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.
When Manuscript Length Is an Issue
I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace (violet prose). Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.
Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.
But, truthfully, if your children’s book length is anything over 100k, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your darlings,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life (check out some revision tools for writers). Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.
The Problem With High Word Count Manuscript Length
Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.
Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)
The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂
Ideal Children’s Book Length
As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted manuscript length word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some ballpark and maximum word counts for different types of projects.
How long should a children’s book be?
- Board Book — 100 words max
- Early Picture Book — 400 words max
- Picture Book — 600 words max (Seriously. Max.)
- Nonfiction Picture Book — 3,000 words max, but closer to 1,000 to 2,000 words
- Early Reader — 1,500 words is the max
- Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level, usually starting at 4,000 words and 15,000 words max
- Young Middle Grade or MG — 15,000 to 25,000 words
- Middle Grade or MG — 45,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor
- Upper Middle Grade — 65,000 words max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
- Young Adult or YA — 85,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 95,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.
- New Adult — 65,000 to 85,000 words
Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience. If a manuscript length goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.
The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween
Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. The categories below middle grade are chapter book and early reader, and you can read about them in a different article. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!
And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.
Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.